| On September 13, the U.S. House and Senate
introduced bipartisan legislation to continue funding that will help
keep Native American languages alive and spoken throughout our countrys
tribal communities. The
Esther Martinez Native American Languages Preservation Act, first
funded in 2008 and set to expire at the end of this year, has funneled
more than $50 million into tribal language programs.
Impassioned sponsors of the bill understand
the crisis facing Native American languages today. Many languages
are endangered and could very well disappear in the next decade
if something isnt done to pass them on to younger generations.
According to UNESCO, there are 139 Native
American languages in the United Statessome spoken by only
a scant number of elderly tribal members. UNESCO claims that more
than 70 of these languages could die off completely within five
years if immediate efforts arent made to preserve them.
Language advocates agree that it would
be a tragedy to lose even one more Native language, as each language
carries with it the rich history, values, wisdom and spiritual beliefs
of a tribe. As one indigenous language instructor recently: Our
language is the number one source of our soul, our pride, our being,
our strength and our identity.
Schools Step It Up
According to the Tulsa World, six Native languages once spoken in
Oklahoma have disappeared and 14 are endangered. In this state with
numerous tribes and languages, there is a strong effort in public
schools and some universities to keep Native languages thriving.
One survey says nine different Native
languages are taught in up to 34 public schools, K-12, all over
Oklahoma: Cherokee, Cheyenne, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Comanche, Kiowa,
Osage, Pawnee and Ponca.
Desa Dawson, director of World Language
Education for the Oklahoma State Department of Education, says 1,355
elementary and high school students in Oklahoma are taking Native
American language classes this year as their world language requirement.
Why the intense interest? Were
Oklahoma, for heavens sake! Dawson says, adding that
while studentsboth Native and non-Nativetake these language
classes to satisfy either a foreign language credit or as an elective,
there are other things that draw them in: Its an opportunity
for Natives who arent immersed in the language at home to
learn more about their heritage; and [for] non-Natives [who] are
surrounded by so many tribes here in Oklahoma, there is a natural
curiosity about them.
Dawson, who speaks Spanish fluently and
knows a few Native words (for hello and thank you), says the biggest
challenges facing language education in the schools are a lack of
teachers fluent in tribal languages and a lack of language textbooks.
Teachers make their own materials, and sometimes tribes furnish
what is needed in the classroom.
She says several groups are tackling the
first problem. The Oklahoma Native Language Association is working
hard on the professional development of language teachers, and several
tribes have created their own language-learning departments from
One success story comes from the Sac &
Fox Nation from Stroud, Oklahoma. Dawson says the tribe had fewer
than five people who spoke Sauk, their native tongue, as their first
language, and they were all more than 70 years old. The tribe started
a special program in which aspiring teachers of Sauk were schooled
by Native speakers 15 to 20 hours a week. As a result, four more
teachers have become fluent in Sauk and a language program is being
developed for the local high school to help grow even more speakers.
Start Young, Very Young
American linguist Noam Chomsky says the best time to learn a language
is to begin at a very young age. During the first years of life,
the critical learning period, children are developing language skills
rapidly and absorb everything they hear because their language
acquisition device is so active.
To this end, the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma
started a preschool language immersion program where young children
who are just learning how to speak are taught and spoken to in their
native tongue only. Enrollment at the Mvnettvlke Enhake immersion
school is currently at six students, from 6 months to 3 years old,
with 10 other children on the waiting list.
After the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma
learned from a survey conducted 10 years ago that no one under the
age of 40 was conversational in their language, the tribe kicked
into high gear. It started a language-immersion school, which began
as private preschool in 2001, where preschool and elementary students
would hear and speak nothing but Cherokee all day.
The Cherokee Immersion School recently
became a public charter school and now receives some funding from
the state. The school made history this year when it graduated its
first class of nine students.
The Old College Try
The University of Oklahoma, through its Anthropology Department,
teaches four Native languages: Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek and Kiowa.
The emphasis in these courses is on conversation, but students also
learn to read and write in the language.
While Linn says these Native languages
arent difficult to learn, the challenge comes in how oftenand
wherethey can be spoken outside the classroom. You do
not get enough exposure to the language or enough time to practice
speaking in 50 minutes, even five days a week, she says. It
is not just a disadvantage to University of Oklahoma students learning
these languages; it is why these languages are endangered.
Northeastern State University in Tahlequah,
Oklahoma, is doing what it can to keep languages in the state off
the endangered list. Through the Department of Languages & Literature,
students can earn a bachelor of arts degree in Cherokee language
education that will prepare them to become teachers and speakers
of the language.
At Southeastern Oklahoma State University
in Durant, Oklahoma, students can earn a minor in Choctaw through
the English, Humanities & Languages department.
For students at Southeastern Oklahoma
State University who are intent on becoming a Choctaw language teacher,
the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma Language Department offers a full
scholarship that includes tuition, fees, books, a living stipend
of $1,500 per month, tutoring, testing fees, relocation-assistance
stipend (if necessary) and laptop computer and printer. For more
details, visit ChoctawSchool.com.